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N.J. lawmakers approve bias training for police, assemblyman’s comments decried as ‘rooted in racist ideology’

Police line in Canada.
Rene Johnston
/
Toronto Star via Getty Images
Police line in Canada.

Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26) suggested that instead of implicit bias training, lawmakers should read the Declaration of Independence.

Members of the New Jersey General Assembly on Monday passed a pair of bills that would require state lawmakers and police officers to undergo diversity and implicit bias training.

And one Republican lawmaker’s comments on the legislation drew criticism from lawmakers across the aisle.

When discussing the bills, Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26) suggested that instead of implicit bias training, lawmakers should read the Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

He said that would go further to encourage equal treatment than implicit bias training would.

Quoting a Scientifc American report, Webber, who is white, also implied that diversity and implicit bias training is an ineffective “social science fad.”

“I propose to the body to do better things with our time,” Webber said.

A Harvard Business Review study suggests implicit bias training can be effective when it goes beyond merely raising awareness about unconscious bias, and teaches attendees how to “manage their biases, change their behavior, and track their progress.”

Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-34), who supported the bill, said Webber’s remarks were rooted in “racist ideology.”

“To use Dr. King, as an example of a quote to undergird the racist thought that bias sensitivity training is not needed, and that we should just study the Declaration of Independence really shows how disconnected he truly is to the struggle and the plight of a people who have built this country on our backs through free labor,” Timberlake, who is Black, said.

The bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Shanique Speight (D-29) said she expected Webber’s comments.

“I really didn't pay it any mind,” Speight said.

“And if no one should have implicit bias training, we are the ones that create the laws and we should have implicit bias training,” she said.

Assemblyman Antwan McClellan (R-1), who is also Black, and voted for both implicit bias training measures, said Webber is entitled to his opinion.

However, he didn’t endorse Webber’s remarks on the Declaration of Independence and Rev. King.

“That’s entirely up to him,” McClellan said.

The Assembly also passed a bill that would require local police departments to host two community roundtable discussions each year.

McClellan voted against that bill.

“There's no reason that we should be forcing people to do stuff. I think people in the community should be doing things organically, and that's how we all should be getting along,” McClellan said. “And especially when it comes to the police.”

Police reform and racial profiling have been perennial issues for communities of color, especially in low-income Black neighborhoods.

Recent protests have made it one of the defining national issues of the last few years.

Since then, the state has taken action on police reform primarily through executive power, but advocates said legislation on the issue of police accountability and abuse of power has generally stalled in the last two years.

One measure signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in January allows police officers to review body camera footage in certain instances.

Advocates for police reform said this law was designed to protect police from being transparent.

Timberlake originally voted against the new body camera law, but changed her vote after Murphy conditionally vetoed the original proposal.

“If something happens, I'm not going to call the Ghostbusters, I'm going to dial 911 and ask for the police to come,” Timberlake said. “With that said, we also have to understand that the culture of policing in our country, this is a nationwide issue, also has racial undertones to it.”

The Senate hasn’t yet scheduled a vote on the measures passed in the Assembly on Monday.